By Jeff Nations
STEPHENS CITY -- The fireworks came after, but Sherando High School senior linebacker Joe Daley provided the biggest bang for the Warriors on Friday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
Facing an efficient Courtland offense in a tie game midway through the fourth quarter, Sherando's defense was moving the wrong way as they tried to corral the Cougars' hard-nosed running attack. Courtland, rarely held without some kind of positive yardage when handing off to one of its trio of 1,000-yard rushers, churned down the field on a drive starting from its own 38-yard line. In eight plays, Courtland (10-3) covered 40 yards to reach the Sherando 22.
Time -- not to mention real estate -- was running out for Sherando (12-1).
Enter Daley, Sherando's fleet outside linebacker. With Courtland looking at a third-and-2 at the Warriors' 23, Daley slid up to the line of scrimmage for a weakside blitz.
Daley timed it perfectly, flying through the gap to arrive just as the ball did to a Cougars running back. Daley's crushing hit jarred the ball loose, and in the ensuing scramble it was Daley rising triumphantly from the turf with ball in hand.
"I like to try to anticipate when the ball is snapped, and I guess I just shot it right," Daley said. "And once I saw the ball, then I just wanted to make a play. Once I saw the loose ball, I saw the kid was about to grab it, and it was just me and him fighting for it. I just came over the top and tried my best. I had to get it."
A football game is a steady progression of plays, but sometimes an entire game can turn on one of them.
"You preach all the time, 'Guys, just play one more play. Just play the play,'" Sherando coach Bill Hall said. "Each play has it's own life, and as long as you can give it its own life and play it to its fullest, then you've got the potential to make those plays."
Given new life, the Warriors needed just five plays to grab the lead. Daley's fellow outside linebacker, Daniel Eppard, opened the drive at fullback and ripped off a 51-yard run. The third of Sherando's linebackers and also a fullback, George Aston, finished the drive a 1-yard run that provided the final scoring in Sherando's 27-20 Class 4A North Region semifinal playoff victory.
The game played out largely as billed on Friday, with Sherando's dazzling linebacking corps going head to head with the Cougars' talented backfield. Aston, the middle linebacker, was named Conference 21 Defensive Most Valuable Player on Friday. He expected a challenge, and got just that in trying to shut down Courtland fullback Anton Jenkins (53 rushing yards, 2 TDs), and wingbacks George Cheetham (66 yards) and Victory Greene (32 yards).
"Their running backs, honestly, were better than I expected," Aston said. "They just ran super-hard downhill. They were great running backs, probably the best we've faced all year."
Aston did what he's been doing all year by pouncing on running backs who penetrated through the line up the middle. Eppard teamed with strong safety Reid Entsminger to lock down the edge on the strong side, and Daley provided much of the weakside pursuit on passing plays by Courtland quarterback Jabari Allen.
Now trailing by a touchdown, the Cougars had to try the pass after Aston's third touchdown of the night. It worked for awhile, as Allen mixed in completions of 18 and 14 yards despite consistent pressure. But facing fourth-and-10 from the Courtland 49 after three straight incompletions, Allen's time ran out. Daley made sure of that, chasing down the Cougars' quarterback for a drive-ending sack that sealed the game.
"Our team needed a big play, and we had to make a stop," Daley said. "When our coach sent me on a blitz, he believed in me and I believed in him, and I had to get the job done."
Eppard wasn't at all surprised to see Daley busting up plays when it counted the most.
"He's a good linebacker and makes good plays if you just get him in the right situation," Eppard said. "You can't stop our linebackers."
Sherando needed just three plays to burn off the final 1:50 from the game clock, with the victory bringing on the traditional postgame fireworks. Daley saw them just like everybody else, but he's looking forward to seeing the real grand finale again on Saturday morning as the Warriors start getting ready to face Salem in next Saturday's regional championship. Game time is 1 p.m. at Arrowhead Stadium.
"We can't wait to watch the film," Daley said.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>